Ultimate Guide: Power Drift
Everything you need to know about Sega’s sensational superscalar-based arcade racer
When Sega’s ‘Super Scaler’ arcade series took off, it really did take off. Hang-on, Enduro Racer and Outrun proved that the hardware was perfect for racing games, but then the series soared skyward with the arrival of After Burner and Thunder Blade in 1987. This was largely due to the introduction of Sega’s X-board hardware which added sprite and background rotational effects to the existing scaling capabilities, making it ideal for aerial titles – particularly After Burner and its celebrated barrel rolls.
This trend continued with the debut of the Y-board in 1988 which was powered by three 68000 CPUS and delivered even more outlandish visual effects. The first title to utilise the Y-board was Galaxy Force, a 3D space shooter which pushed the scaling and rotational effects to dizzying heights. The Y-board was a serious piece of kit, but was it a good fit for other types of game? Could it be the engine for a racing game? Perhaps – but to justify its use, it would surely need to be ridiculous and completely over-the-top. And that’s precisely what Sega’s star designer Yu Suzuki delivered with Power Drift.
On paper Power Drift is a fairly typical racing game. You choose one of 12 wacky characters (who resemble the cast of the worst US sitcom) and you have to complete four laps of a short circular stage. If you finish in third place or higher you move to the next stage. If you successfully finish five stages you complete the course and the game ends. There are five different courses to choose from, so overall there are 25 stages (plus a couple of neat bonus stages). It’s pretty standard, humdrum stuff.
But the racing action itself is anything but routine – and this becomes apparent when you reach the very first corner. On turning, the viewpoint tilts sharply around the rear of your vehicle. It’s an unusual and arresting effect, and it happens almost constantly due to number of twists and turns you encounter
(despite the title, no actual drifting is involved). Furthermore, the tracks are more like rollercoasters than roads, with bridges climbing high into the air and then dropping sharply back down to earth. All of this plays out at a frantic pace that barely lets up – even when you crash. Whereas Sega’s early racing games revelled in crowd-pleasing crashes, it was ultimately grating to see your precious seconds ticking away. Power Drift does away with all that and after a bad smash you’re dropped straight back onto the track and given a rolling start.
the game really does showcase the power of the Y-board hardware. However, as this is a Sega simulator, the game is only part of the story. For the true experience you had to sample Power Drift in its full-fat form. The ‘Deluxe’ cab resembles the famous sit-down Outrun model, but the motorised movement is more jarring and pronounced. In fact, on the sharpest of corners the cab tilts up to 20 degrees to the left or right. Sega even fitted a seat belt, which was probably done more in the name of gimmickry than safety. There was also the standard upright model which dispensed with the movement and replaced the sit-down’s 26-inch monitor with a 19-inch one.
The game suffered in this more compact form, and perhaps exposed some of the gameplay shortcomings.
The reaction to the game from the specialist press was largely positive, albeit with a lot of “strap in or lose your breakfast” quips and other rad remarks. The Sinclair User staff were massive fans, calling it “the racing game to end all racing games”, no less, and awarding it 10/10. Somewhat less enthusiastic was Newsfield’s Robin Hogg, who wrote in The Games Machine that “up against Chase HQ it doesn’t fare too well”. One criticism that everybody shared was the price to play, as the Deluxe cab cost £1 a go. At the time most coin-ops were still 20p per credit in the UK, and a few were testing the water at 30p. £1 was madness and this probably excluded a lot of players. “At a quid a go it’s fairly expensive but nevertheless it’s just one game you’ve got to give a whirl,” wrote Clare Edgeley in C&VG.
Having previously scored a huge hit with its home conversions of After Burner, Activision snapped up the computer rights and readied the game for the Christmas 1989 period. Of those the Commodore 64 version was the most playable (though least accurate) and the Atari ST was the least playable (though most accurate). A solid version was later released for the PC Engine in 1990, but bizarrely the game was never converted to a Sega home console, despite sister Y-board title Galaxy Force appearing on both the Master System and Mega Drive. The game was
“We could never match [the arcade version] on the home computers of the time” John Mullins
reported to be in development for the Mega Drive, and later the Mega-cd, but ultimately it was never released on either cart or disc. Meanwhile Game Gear owners were treated to the Sonic Drift games – in these entries the tracks were flat, but the vehicle movement and vibrant character gestures were pulled straight from Power Drift.
in 1998 the game graced the Sega
Saturn as an entry in the Japanese Sega Ages range. This version is almost arcade perfect and includes various extras including rearranged music, an automatic gear option and a new Grand Prix mode (which lets you play through the five courses in succession). Three years later it was included on the Yu Suzuki Games Works compilation for the Dreamcast alongside four other hits from the main man. Like the Saturn version this was never released outside Japan.
Happily in 2016 the Nintendo 3DS version of the game did receive a Western release as part of the Sega 3D Classics Collection. Like all of M2’s 3DS remasters, this is a superb and affectionate update that plays brilliantly in 3D. As yet the game has not received a standalone released on the European and US eshops, but it has in Japan where – surprise surprise – it features a unique ‘Special Mode’. Not only does this unlockable mode feature musical medleys from other Sega hits, but the 12 racers have been replaced by Sega stalwarts (everyone from Shinobi and Alex Kid to the Outrun flagman and ‘Mr Hang-on’). That’s all the retro love Power Drift could expect to get – although saying that, it’s a matter of fact that Power Drift is the only game in the Yu Suzuki Games Works collection not to be playable in the Shenmue series. Could Power Drift finally appear in the upcoming Shenmue III? Even Ryo might crack a smile at that prospect.
» [Arcade] It’s perhaps better to hang back a bit when the track is jammed up with racers to avoid spinning out.
» [Arcade] A familiar site, but thankfully a brief one as the game throws you straight back into the action.
» [Arcade] The game’s rollercoaster-style dips really set the game apart from other racers of the era.
» [Arcade] That firstplace finish is in sight, but watch out: second place is just behind.